Mitt Romney will walk a tightrope Thursday, delivering a speech on religion's place in U.S. politics that is being billed as an attempt for the Republican presidential candidate to get out in front of questions about his Mormon faith and convince voters Mormonism is not a reason to avoid his candidacy.
The top-tier GOP hopeful and his aides have stressed that the address, to be delivered at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, will not be a “primer on Mormonism,” nor will it be the Mormon version of John F. Kennedy's speech during the 1960 campaign addressing prejudices against Catholicism.
But the potentially landmark address, titled "Faith in America," could be a pivotal moment, for better or worse. In excerpts of the speech released to the press ahead of the 10:30 a.m. EST address, Romney says that having to outline his religion to win the post of president is unconstitutional.
Click on FOXNews.com at 10:30 EST to watch Mitt Romney deliver his speech on faith in America.
"There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the constitution. No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith. For if he becomes president he will need the prayers of the people of all faiths."
Romney also gives a hint as to what role his religion would play in his presidency.
"When I place my hand on the Bible and take the oath of office, that oath becomes my highest promise to God. If I am fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest. A president must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States," he is expected to say.
Though Romney's campaign insists the speech is not a response to slipping polls or anti-Mormon literature on the trail, it's a topic he's been repeatedly forced to confront. How he handles the speech could shape his ability to connect with Christian conservatives, some of whom distrust followers of the Utah-based religion.
“If he turns it into just another campaign speech, it will backfire on him,” said C. Welton Gaddy, a Baptist preacher, author and president of the Interfaith Alliance.
Gaddy said that Romney will need to shy away from turning the speech into a lesson on Mormonism while showing an appreciation for religion and dramatically stating that faith does not dictate the actions of a president.
"It’s more an issue with Christian conservatives," Gaddy said. “He wants to appeal to that voting bloc and needs to appeal to that voting bloc if he’s going to get that nomination, and this is a way of dealing with that.”
Indeed, Romney will attempt to address one issue of great import to Christian conservatives, efforts to eliminate religion altogether from public life.
"We separate church and state affairs in this country, and for good reason. No religion should dictate to the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion. But in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America — the religion of secularism. They are wrong," Romney will say.
"The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation 'Under God' and in God, we do indeed trust," continue the excerpted portions of the speech.
"We should acknowledge the Creator as did the founders — in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places. Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our constitution rests. I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from 'the God who gave us liberty.'"
American Conservative Union Chairman David Keene, who recently endorsed the former Massachusetts governor, said suggestions the speech is needed may be “overblown,” though it does present Romney an opportunity to “get it out of the way.”
“The idea that people are going to vote for a president or not vote for him because of theological differences they may have with him is not likely to be a factor with very many voters,” Keene told FOXNews.com, adding, “I’m not sure he’s going to win or lose because he gave this speech.”
FOX News contributor and former Maryland lieutenant governor Michael Steele said the address is at heart a response to American prejudices against his religion.
"People don't understand Mormonism. They have sort of prejudiced views of it, or stereotyped views of it," he said. "He's kind of addressing that to say, 'Look I'm a man of faith like many of you are men and women of faith. My traditions may be different, but the core of who I am and what I believe is not that much different and there's nothing for you to worry about,'" said Steele.
Steele said he has thought from the outset that this is an issue Romney needs to "nip in the bud."
The speech has been rumored for months and has been a cause of division among Romney's staff. Aides now admit they think a lot is riding on this speech, though they've left unclear how specific and how personal Romney will get.
Romney is expected to make brief mention of his personal perspective.
"These American values, this great moral heritage, is shared and lived in my religion as it is in yours. I was taught in my home to honor God and love my neighbor. I saw my father march with Martin Luther King. I saw my parents provide compassionate care to others, in personal ways to people nearby, and in just as consequential ways in leading national volunteer movements," he is to say.
"My faith is grounded on these truths. You can witness them in Ann and my marriage and in our family. We are a long way from perfect and we have surely stumbled along the way, but our aspirations, our values, are the self -same as those from the other faiths that stand upon this common foundation. And these convictions will indeed inform my presidency."
Romney told FOX News Tuesday that he doesn't feel pressured to give the talk, but that he wants to address "the need to preserve the pluralistic religious heritage of America."
"I look at it as a way to take what is a natural interest in my faith, in my candidacy, and talk about the practice of religious liberty in America and how important it is to our political system and to our freedoms," Romney said.
While 16 members of Congress are Mormon, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Romney acknowledges his religion is more of an issue because he is running for president. If elected, he would be the first Mormon in the Oval Office.
He's already run into distrust on the campaign trail. In November, voters in early election states reported receiving phone calls from people who appeared to be pollsters but then made critical comments about Romney's faith. At the time, Romney said, "The attempts to attack me on the basis of my faith are un-American."
The faith-based skepticism is widespread. A FOX News poll of 900 registered voters released in October found that only 36 percent of those polled thought most Americans would feel comfortable with a Mormon president. Twenty-one percent said Romney's faith made them less likely to vote for him. Twenty-six percent said they did not think Mormons were Christians.
A Pew Research Center poll in September found a quarter of all Republicans said they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon.
Mainstream Mormonism holds that authentic Christianity vanished a century after Jesus and was restored only through Joseph Smith, considered a prophet in the Mormon faith.
The public view of Mormonism is negatively colored by its intertwined history with polygamy. Though the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints rejects polygamy, self-described Fundamentalist Mormons still engage in the practice.
The recent high-profile trial of fundamentalist sect leader Warren Jeffs for arranging a marriage between an underage woman and her cousin further cast the religion in a negative light. Officials at LDS headquarters in Salt Lake City have made clear on several occasions that Jeffs is not and never has been a member of the church.
Perhaps feeling scrutinized about his religion, Romney stumbled over a question on the Bible during a debate in Florida last week.
After stammering in his response to whether he believes the Bible is literal or figurative, Romney said, "The Bible is the word of God. I mean, I might interpret the word differently than you interpret the word, but I read the Bible and I believe the Bible is the word of God. I don't disagree with the Bible. I try to live by it."
The coming address is frequently compared with John F. Kennedy's speech, which he gave because he said he felt his religion had become a barrier in the campaign. In the address, Kennedy, who delivered his speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, said the Catholic Church would not speak for him, and warned others of the religious persecution he was facing.
"Today, I may be the victim — but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril," Kennedy said.
Romney said Tuesday, "The focus of what I'm going to be talking about is not answering questions about my church, because in fact, John F. Kennedy 47 years ago really gave the definitive address relating to discrimination in politics based on someone's religion."
He added: "No church should be involved in trying to set the affairs of the nation," but "I don't think it is a problem to have a recognition of the role of faith in our society and to recognize the creator."
In his excerpts, Romney suggests religion does play a role in his life, and he praises the United States for its providing the freedom for people to worship as they please.
"We can be deeply thankful that we live in a land where reason and religion are friends and allies in the cause of liberty, joined against the evils and dangers of the day. And you can be certain of this: Any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me. And so it is for hundreds of millions of our countrymen: we do not insist on a single strain of religion — rather, we welcome our nation's symphony of faith."
Romney is addressing the issue head on just as religion takes a lead role in the Republican race, particularly in early voting Iowa where Romney’s chief competitor, Southern Baptist Minister Mike Huckabee, has jeopardized Romney's once comfortable lead.
A Des Moines Register poll taken from Nov. 25 to 28 showed Huckabee with 29 percent and Romney with 24 percent. The poll’s margin of error was 4.4 percent.
Huckabee is riding a tide due in large part to support from Christian conservatives, who make up anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of Republicans who traditionally attend the Iowa caucuses, set for Jan. 3. Huckabee has only amplified the issue of religion, calling himself a Christian leader in television ads. In a recent Iowa ad, he says, "Faith doesn't just influence me. It really defines me ... Let us never sacrifice our principles for anybody's politics. Not now, not ever."
The former Arkansas governor on Tuesday sidestepped a question about what he thinks of the opinion held by some Christian evangelicals that Mormonism is a cult — he said what other candidates believe "is theirs to explain, not mine, and I'm not going to."
Thursday's faith speech could also serve to humanize Romney, whose picture-perfect image has made him seem inaccessible with some voters and has helped widen the opening for Huckabee, whose humble roots and regular guy looks really seem to connect with voters. While Huckabee's connection is not the same as that offered by Bill Clinton, it does follow the "easy-going Arkansan model" of the former president.
Romney, on the other hand, with his perfect hair and perfect family can come off plastic and unconvincing. This is something aides suggest Romney will be able to resolve during his speech by presenting himself as an authentic individual.
Gaddy said that if Romney successfully pulls off the speech, it will allow him to put the issue to rest by serving as the definitive statement on his religious views — one he can point voters to when asked.
“I think he’s tired of answering the religion question," Gaddy said.
FOX News' Carl Cameron and Shushannah Walshe and The Associated Press contributed to this report.